DENVER -- You know what the problem is when your nose is running and your feet are smelling, right?
Exactly; you're upside down.
As it happened, some similar inversion was precisely the topic as last night's seriously beguiling Monday Night Football episode between the Steelers and the Broncos wore toward some form of sanity.
None of the pregame warnings regarding the ominous atmospherics of the Rocky Mountains foretold of the likelihood that two of the best teams in the AFC would be looking at each other upside down for most of the night, but five minutes deep in the third quarter, the defenses were scoring the touchdowns, the offenses were giving them up, and the respective special teams appeared to be conspiring toward some similarly unconventional climax.
The Broncos, a somehow suspect 6-1 at kickoff, were again running the same strain of offense made malevolent by the New England Patriots, the former employer of their rookie coach, Josh McDaniels. New England had the best record in the NFL during the eight seasons McDaniels spent there, but transplanted to Colorado, McDaniels finds himself missing some key elements:
Tom Brady, Randy Moss, an accomplished offensive line, Wes Welker, just to name most of a half dozen.
Despite his 27-13 record as a starting quarterback, Kyle Orton is a poor coach's Brady, with no apparent ability to strike over the top of a defense, even one as depleted as the unit Dick LeBeau chicken-wired together around the absence of Ryan Clark, Lawrence Timmons, Aaron Smith, Travis Kirschke, and even late scratch Sunny Harris.
That's essentially how Denver wound up outgaining the Steelers, 183 yards to 54, and outpassing them, 157-31, by halftime, all without doing any damage. The longest of Orton's completions covered only 20 yards.
Meanwhile, Ty Carter's 48-yard interception return to the Denver end zone in the second quarter meant that the Steelers' defense had scored three touchdowns since the last time the offense had managed one.
"We always try to make big plays on defense," Carter said 20 minutes after the Steelers horse-collared Denver, 28-10. "If we can score on defense we know we have a good chance to win the game."
When Ben Roethlisberger had the football pried from him on the Steelers' initial possession of the second half, and rookie linebacker Robert Ayers lugged it 54 yards the other way to put Denver ahead, 10-7, it looked very much as though a courageous effort by a besieged Steelers defense would end up a footnote to the third loss of this season.
Even at that, the defense hadn't put itself in a position to gain a lot of sympathy. Brandon Marshall, the topical wideout spearheading an offense not nearly as bright as his day-glo orange footwear, wore down Steelers corner William Gay badly in the early evening.
"Eddie Royal, he ran some good routes on me; I just had to settle down is all," Gay said. "But I've seen the way this defense responds now for two years and I see the way they work every day. I'm not surprised at anything they do."
When the offense suddenly sat bolt upright in the second half, going 80 yards on four plays to a 14-10 lead, the capacity crowd at Invesco Field was compelled to remember that despite the depletions in LeBeau's defense, it was still thick with superstars. Polamalu was still flying, James Harrison still mauling, Brett Keisel still attacking everything that flashed in front of him. These are the people who make it possible for Mike Tomlin to insist that regardless of circumstances, the standard of expectation does not change. It's no coincidence that the standard of excellence players like these have long since established and so consistently achieve turns into victories in difficult environments.
"We did what we try to do every game," Keisel said when apprised of Denver's second-half rushing total -- 1 yard. "If we can make them one dimensional we can unleash our blitzes, people have a hard time picking up what we're doing."
No one remains so hard to deal with as Polamalu, who darted into the national spotlight still again to nail gun the Broncos to a second consecutive loss.
Backed to their 9 with half the fourth quarter melted away, Orton sent Correll Buckhalter toward the left edge on first-and-10, and a millisecond after Buckhalter got the handoff, he got a bellyful of Troy's flowing black mane.
On second-and-10, Orton looked for Marshall over the middle, a quick post that looked promising until Polamalu leaped toward another of the kind of intersections only he seems to envision. That interception not only meant the Steelers had picked off Orton twice as often last night as he had been all season (Carter added his second and the team's third in the final minutes), it set Roethlisberger up at the Denver 25.
Three plays later, Ben fled the pocket and found Mike Wallace for the sealant touchdown.
This Steelers team grew in significant ways in the mountain air. Playing Ziggy Hood and reminding Gay what it takes to win games like this is a crucial component.
"I wake up every morning and thank God I play with people like this," said Hood, the No. 1 pick who got his most substantial playing time to date. "It's not only the kind of players they are, but the kind of people. To be able to play on a defense with a tradition like this is just unbelievable. It's a blessing."
So Tomlin's team had won with defense again, effectively using its own most prominent vulnerability to flog a very solid opponent on the road. That can't be good news in Indianapolis, in New England, or anywhere else where they dream the Steelers can be had.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com .